Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2019

Behold a storyteller

S. Zaheeruddin Ahmed, Founder, iD Creations, in profile.

Inside Elahi Studio it is dark, crowded and boisterous (in contrast to the bright and sunny day outside). I stand still for a moment in order to let my pupils adapt to the change in light. Through the glimmers of the studio spotlights, I spot a table around which a group of people are gathered... most of them with plates in hand; some are waiting for their turn, some are standing in small groups, eating and conversing (most of them audibly). I reckon it is lunch break for the production team.

Careful not to trip over the cables lying everywhere, I move through the animated crowd and dial Zaheeruddin Ahmed. Standing atop a flight of stairs, he waves and directs me to him. The stairs lead to a well-lit corridor lined with rooms on both sides. I am pointed towards the first door on the left. Ahmed enters holding a plate of daal chawal. He sits down and is ready to talk. Right away he gives a disclaimer that there are going to be frequent intervals during our talk as he is in the middle of shooting a TVC for Homage appliances.

Lean and tall, wearing olive linen shorts, a grey t-shirt and a flat cap (under which I could see a few wisps of his salt and pepper hair), Ahmed is a 45-year-old producer and film director with several well-known TVCs to his credit. The ones that have shot him to fame include Dostea and the Kenwood series and the recent Kingtox ad that has become an instant hit. He has also written concepts and scripts for most of the TVCs he has produced, and what sets his commercials apart from the others – besides humour – is insight and strong storytelling.

“Where do those concepts come from?” is my first question.

“They are all around you. You only have to look. Good concept writing requires observation and experiencing life firsthand. I did not receive any professional education in direction, production or writing. But neither did most of the other producers. When you write from experience and insight, it hits the bull’s eye.”

In terms of storytelling, he says that a habit of reading since he was a child developed in him the skill along with the art of characterisation. One of his strongest influences was his maternal grandmother, an avid reader who inculcated in him a love of reading. Other influences include his parents who were amateur writers.

“Although my father was a civil engineer, he played a lot of musical instruments and often wrote poetry. I inherited a huge collection of books after his death.”

Given all this, the obvious course would have been to pursue the arts; writing, theatre or filmmaking, but for a boy growing up in the eighties, it wasn’t that easy.

“For a middle-class family, they were taboo careers. They called it ganda kaam, something shareef people did not indulge in. Also, we were living in Zia’s time, when creativity was stymied by strict censorship policies. There was no chance I could take up the arts.”

His father’s demise when he was 10, left Ahmed with no one to guide him in choosing a career; directionless, he took up anything family or friends suggested. Despite knowing that the nine to five routine his two brothers (both working in the oil and gas sector) followed was not his cup of tea, he graduated in Commerce and planned on doing his Master’s in the same subject.

He might well have ended up being a linguist or perhaps a ‘polyglot vagabond’ when he took up French and German, inspired by reading the travelogues written by Mustansir Hussain Tarar. At that point, he was pinning his hopes on travelling to those places (which later he eventually did) but again, on someone’s recommendation, he cut short that dream and enrolled in a graphic design course before his Master’s degree began.

The subject caught his interest; one he thought was something he would like to pursue. It was also when he had his first brush with advertising. The course taught graphic design specifically for the industry and students had to acquire the basics of advertising. As he learned more about how the industry worked, Ahmed began writing his own concepts and realised he was better at conceptualisation than design.

“In terms of design, I felt I had only learned how to operate different softwares; nothing else.”

Once he finished his course, he began to apply at several advertising agencies. A couple of them called him for an interview, but neither of them materialised into a job. Instead, while trying his luck at different places, he set up his own small ad agency called Pixel Advertising. His first client was Denso Power Air Conditioners for whom he made a couple of adverts. It became clear to him that he needed to learn further if he wanted to operate on a bigger platform.

“A good script is 50% of the work done; a strong narrative gives a distinctive flavour that stands out in the clutter. Another 25% involves finding the right cast and the rest is set up, direction and all that. You never appreciate a commercial just because of a fancy set.”

That opportunity came when he was offered the job of Visual Artist at Awan and Kapadia. Hired for his design skills, he quickly began participating in conceptualising, a talent acknowledged by his employers. The agency, however, soon split, resulting in the departure of Imran Awan. Ahmed Kapadia then set up Synergy Advertising. Kapadia, however, had little experience in creative, so that when the account for Bank Alfalah Traveller’s Cheque came to the agency, he jumped at the chance to try his creative skills.

“ I asked Kapadia if I could do it. And he let me.”

The client’s nod to his first presentation led him to become officially a creative at Synergy. From then on, he was promoted to Creative Manager, Creative Head, ACD and finally in 2004, a Creative Director.

“Synergy was the first place where I felt I belonged. It was an open learning field and Kapadia encouraged me every step of the way.”

In 2003, he also started to work on Synergiser.

“Yes, there was Aurora in the market, but I felt it gave an outsider's perspective of the industry; we on the other hand, wanted to give an insider’s view. You can’t thoroughly know something until you have hands-on experience.”

A creative and now an editor, Zaheer’s chance to become a director was around the corner. It happened when a director refused to shoot an ad because he asked for more money than he had earlier quoted.

“I told Kapadia I wanted to do it. He asked me whether I would be able to. I said yes... and this is how I became a director.”

With zero technical knowledge about production, lenses or lighting, he directed the TVC.

“I only knew the story and I knew how I wanted it told.”

In 2004, he was transferred to Synergy Lahore to handle some important clients there. However, boredom soon kicked in. He needed a bigger canvas to showcase his talents. He resigned from Synergy in 2006 and set up his own production house called iD Creations. His first project came via Synergy and later he shot commercials for multiple agencies and brands including Continental Biscuits, Haier, National Foods and Tapal.

In 2007, following a decline in projects, he closed down iD Creations temporarily and joined Adcom Leo Burnett. Imran Syed hired him to set up the Islamabad office. He spent 2008 at Adcom in the capacity of Creative Director and later Account Director. Meanwhile, projects began coming in for iD Creations and Ahmed left Adcom in 2009.

Since then, he has been busy with his own production company. He says the TVC that first shot him to fame was the one for the Telenor Persona Karobar Account in 2009.

“How do you know it was that one?” I ask.

“It created a buzz; directors and people from the client side called me and praised it.”

According to him, Pakistan’s advertising market is imitation-driven and not content-driven. We are happy watching grand and glossy commercials. When you try to change an industry’s norms, it takes time. He is also of the firm opinion that to make a good commercial, a good script is essential.

“A good script is 50% of the work done; a strong narrative gives a distinctive flavour that stands out in the clutter. Another 25% involves finding the right cast and the rest is set up, direction and all that. You never appreciate a commercial just because of a fancy set.”